“My dad always told me that holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.”
“I wonder how many tears the ocean has swallowed, how much of the ocean is actually made of tears.”
“What about me?" I whisper. "Where do I belong?"
"With me," my mother and Galen say in unison. They exchange hard glares. Galen locks his jaw.
"I'm her mother," she tells Galen, her voice sharp. "Her place is with me."
"I want her for my mate," Galen says. The admission warms up the space between us with an impossible heat and I want to melt into him. His words, his declaration, cannot be unspoken. And now he's declared it to everyone who matters. It's out there in the open, hanging in the air. He wants me for his mate. Me. Him. Forever.”
“Wait," I call to him. He stops. " I just wanted to say, I like your big fin. I think it's very sexy.”
“Did you hear what I said? She's ex-Mob. Her gun probably eats guns like that for breakfast.”
“Finally, Grom shakes his head. "She's a Half-Breed, Galen."
Mom's head snaps toward him. "She's my daughter," she says slowly. She pulls herself from his lap and stands over him, hands on hips. Oh, he's in serious shiznit now. And I can't help but feel elated about it."Are you saying my daughter's not good enough for your brother?"
Yeah, Grom, are you? Huh, huh are you?
Grom sighs, the triviality in his expression softening into something else. "Nalia, love-"
"Don't you 'Nalia, love' me." Mom crosses her arms”
“As soon as she releases me, Galen grabs my hand and I don't even have time to gasp before he snatches me to the surface and pulls me toward shore, only pausing to dislodge his pair of swimming trunks from under his favorite rock, where he had just moments before taken the time to hide them.
I know the routine and turn away so he can change, but it seems like no time before he hauls me onto the beach and drags me to the sand dunes in front of my house. "What are you doing?" I ask. His legs are longer than mine so for every two of his strides I have to take three, which feels a lot like running.
He stops us in between the dunes. "I'm doing something that is none of anyone else's business." Then he jerks me up against him and crushes his mouth on mine. And I see why he didn't want an audience for this kiss. I wouldn't want an audience for this kiss, either, especially if the audience included my mother. This is our first kiss after he announced that he wanted me for his mate. This kiss holds promises of things to come.
When he pulls away I feel drunk and excited and nervous and filled with a craving that I'm not sure can ever be satisfied. And Galen looks startled. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that," he says. "That makes it about fifty times harder to leave, I think.”
“I can't believe our parents wanted more offspring after you," Rayna tells Grom. Even hoarse, she's still able to infuse her irritation in each forced word. "After birthing an idiot like you, I'd never think about having more-”
“And then Grom says: "I'm already mated to Paca."
The realization slaps us each in a different way.
Me, with elation
Galen, with...I'm not sure. He hasn't moved
Mom, with horror.
Toraf, with open-mouth shock that makes him look a bit silly.
Rayna, with "You idiot," she spits. "We told you-"
Grom points at her in the universal watch-yo-self sign.”
“I assume these structures are made for siting?”
“It sucks to be a klutz on land and a klutz in the water.”
“You’re sure you want to do this,” Galen says, eyeing me like I’ve grown a tiara of snakes on my head.
“Absolutely.” I unstrap the four-hundred-dollar silver heels and spike them into the sand. When he starts unraveling his tie, I throw out my hand. “No! Leave it. Leave everything on.”
Galen frowns. “Rachel would kill us both. In our sleep. She would torture us first.”
“This is our prom night. Rachel would want us to enjoy ourselves.” I pull the thousand-or-so bobby pins from my hair and toss them in the sand. Really, both of us are right. She would want us to be happy. But she would also want us to stay in our designer clothes.
Leaning over, I shake my head like a wet dog, dispelling the magic of hairspray. Tossing my hair back, I look at Galen.
His crooked smile almost melts me where I stand. I’m just glad to see a smile on his face at all. The last six months have been rough. “Your mother will want pictures,” he tells me.
“And what will she do with pictures? There aren’t exactly picture frames in the Royal Caverns.” Mom’s decision to mate with Grom and live as his queen didn’t surprise me. After all, I am eighteen years old, an adult, and can take care of myself. Besides, she’s just a swim away.
“She keeps picture frames at her house though. She could still enjoy them while she and Grom come to shore to-“
“Okay, ew. Don’t say it. That’s where I draw the line.”
Galen laughs and takes off his shoes. I forget all about Mom and Grom. Galen, barefoot in the sand, wearing an Armani tux. What more could a girl ask for?
“Don’t look at me like that, angelfish,” he says, his voice husky. “Disappointing your grandfather is the last thing I want to do.”
My stomach cartwheels. Swallowing doesn’t help. “I can’t admire you, even from afar?” I can’t quite squeeze enough innocence in there to make it believable, to make it sound like I wasn’t thinking the same thing he was.
Clearing his throat, he nods. “Let’s get on with this.” He closes the distance between us, making foot-size potholes with his stride. Grabbing my hand, he pulls me to the water. At the edge of the wet sand, just out of reach of the most ambitious wave, we stop.
“You’re sure?” he says again.
“More than sure,” I tell him, giddiness swimming through my veins like a sneaking eel. Images of the conference center downtown spring up in my mind. Red and white balloons, streamers, a loud, cheesy DJ yelling over the starting chorus of the next song. Kids grinding against one another on the dance floor to lure the chaperones’ attention away from a punch bowl just waiting to be spiked. Dresses spilling over with skin, matching corsages, awkward gaits due to six-inch heels. The prom Chloe and I dreamed of.
But the memories I wanted to make at that prom died with Chloe. There could never be any joy in that prom without her. I couldn’t walk through those doors and not feel that something was missing. A big something.
No, this is where I belong now. No balloons, no loud music, no loaded punch bowl. Just the quiet and the beach and Galen. This is my new prom. And for some reason, I think Chloe would approve.”
“Pick,” Emma tells her.
Tira’s lip trembles. She tries to back out of sight, but someone pushes her forward. “Pick…Pick what?”
Emma motions to the halo of predators above them, around them, everywhere. “Pick two. Any two you want, and I will have them divide Jagen’s body evenly.”
“No!” Jagen screams, his face contorted in terror.
Emma cocks her head at him. “Jagen, make up your mind. Didn’t you just say you don’t believe I have the Gift? So then why should you care if she points to some harmless sharks?”
He clamps his mouth shut, but the look of panic stays.
Tira says, “I couldn’t do that, Highness.”
Highness! Someone called Emma “Highness!” It’s one of the many names she calls Galen when she’s mad at him. The irony is not lost on Emma. Her death glare cuts off his snickers.
She turns back to Tira. “Of course you can. There’s nothing to worry about because Paca has the Gift, remember? Isn’t that what you all believe? She would never let any harm come to her own father, would she? I know I wouldn’t. So go ahead and pick. Paca will save Jagen.”
Clever little angelfish. Galen smirks at Jagen, who won’t meet his eyes. Nalia and Grom make their way to the edge of the center. Grom grins at Emma like she’s his own daughter. Which is very weird for Galen.”
“IT’S ONE of those moments where life seems to pause, and the universe opens its mouth and vomits comprehension on you.”
“How apparent is it that I want to put Grom into a headlock until he goes to sleep, and yell at Mom for not loving Dad or caring that he's dead?”
“Now, it is our understanding that his Majesty Grom is requesting an unsealing from his mating with the Common Paca?”
“That is correct,” Antonis says, rolling his eyes. “Poseidon’s beard, but this is repetitive.”
Tandel ignores the elder king’s bluster. “It is also our understanding that Prince Galen requests, in exchange for his help, and the help of Emma the Half-Breed, that he is permitted to mate with Emma as if she were full-blooded Syrena.”
“You have that correct,” Galen answers gruffly.
Tandel pauses. “And do the Royals have any more requests at this time?”
“Yes,” Emma says, to Galen’s surprise. She’s never held back from speaking what’s on her mind. But she never acknowledged herself as a Royal until now. “Because of my Half-breed status, and the fact that I’ve lived on land all my life, I would like for the Royals to be able to visit me here whenever they like. I know that under the current laws, that’s not allowed, but I want that changed.”
“You might as well agree to that, Tandel,” Antonis says. “Or else you’ll be holding another tribunal for the Royals, because all of us intend to be visiting land more often I think.”
“Actually I won’t be visiting land,” Galen says. He turns to Emma. “I’ll be living here.” Tears pool in her eyes. He catches one sliding down her cheek and kisses it away. Her reaction just confirms what he’d suspected all along. That she’s been worried about it. How it would work out between them, where would they live. Emma had said before that she wanted the best of both worlds. Prom, graduation, college. Swimming with dolphins, visiting the Titanic, searching for Amelia Earhart’s plane. He intends to make sure she has it all.”
“If they’re sentenced to the Caverns, we’ll both be free to choose different mates. But I don’t want another mate, Emma. I want Rayna. I always have.”
Geez, the boy knows how to make my heart all melty.”
“I feel him beside me, hear the even sound of his breathing, smell the delicious saltiness of his skin.
I have missed him.
I move to face him, and that’s when the pain reminds me that I’ve recently been stabbed. I bury my face in the pillow, but it doesn’t quite muffle my yelp.
“Emma?” Galen says groggily. I feel his hand in my hair, stroking the length of it. “Don’t move, angelfish. Stay on your stomach. I’ll go tell Rachel you’re ready for more pain medicine.”
Immediately I disobey and turn my face up to him. He shakes his head. “I’ve recently learned where your stubbornness comes from.”
I grimace/smile. “My mom?”
“Worse. King Antonis. The resemblance is uncanny.” He leans down and presses his lips to mine and all too quickly springs back up. “Now, be a good little deviant and stay put while I go get more pain meds.”
“Galen,” I say.
“How bad am I hurt?”
He caresses the outline of my cheek. His touch could disintegrate me. “Hurt at all is bad enough for me.”
“Yeah, but you’ve always been a baby about this stuff.” I grin at his faux offense.
“Your mother says it’s only a flesh wound. She’s been treating it.”
“Mom is here?”
“She’s downstairs. Uh…You should know that Grom is here, too.”
Grom left the tribunal and headed for land? Did that mean it all ended badly? Well, even worse than my getting impaled? An urgent need to know everything about everything shimmies through me. “Whoa. Sit. Talk. Now.”
He laughs. “I will, I promise. But I want to make you comfortable first.”
“Well, then, you need to come over here and switch places with the bed.” A blush fills my cheeks, but I don’t care. I need him. All of him. It feels like forever since we’ve talked like this, just me and him. But talking usually doesn’t last long. Lips were made for other things, too. And Galen is especially good at the other things.
He walks back and squats by the bed. “You have no idea how tempting that is.” It seems like the violet of his eyes gets darker. It’s the color they get when he has to pull away from me, when we’re about to violate a bunch of Syrena laws if we don’t stop. “But you’re not well enough to…” He runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll go get Rachel. Then we can talk.”
I’m a little surprised that his argument didn’t begin with “But the law…” That is what has stopped us in the past. Now the only thing that appears to be stopping us is my stabby condition.
And why am I not excited about it? I used to get so frustrated when he would pull away. But a small part of me loved that about him, his respect for the law and for the tradition of his people. His respect for me. Respect is a hard thing to come by when picking from among human boys. Is that respect gone?
And is it my fault?”
“I think it’s time to go ahead and start, don’t you? We don’t want them to have enough time to make a trip back to shore with her.”
Galen swims to within an inch of my face. His lazy grin sends a thousand butterflies whipping up a tornado in my stomach. “Start what? The rescue, or the rest of our lives together?”
Just the words make my heart jump, let alone the look he gives me when he says it. We haven’t had much time to talk about what all this means for us, but at least I know we can be together. On our own terms, in our own time. Finally. “Both,” I breathe.
“This is not the time to be all mushy,” Rayna calls from below us. “I swear you two are expert time wasters. So inconsiderate.”
Galen winks at me and dives to his sister.
“Wait,” I call to him. He stops. “I just wanted to say, I like your big fin. I think it’s sexy.” Which is the truth. Now t’s more than double the size of any other Syrena. I know he’s self-conscious about it; he thinks it makes him stand out more. What Galen doesn’t realize is that he already stood out. He was already special. This new fin doesn’t change anything. Well, except for making me hotter for him than I already was.
“Really?” Galen says.
I nod and blow him a kiss. By his confused expression, he has no idea what I’m doing. My Syrena human ambassador still has a lot to learn about the intimate details of the human world. And I’ll be happy to assist him with that.”
“Rachel must be putting on a theatrical display, because the small boat rocks while she talks. "I don't need these life jackets anymore," she says, in her thickest Italian accent. "The colors are all wrong for me. I mean, look at this orange. Ew, right?"
Galen rolls his eyes. I try not to giggle.
"And this green? Hideous!" she continues.”
“Only land dwellers worry about storms.”
“I need you to be serious right now.”
“Probably you shouldn’t have drugged me, then.”
“As it moves closer, Galen can make out smaller bodies within the mass. Whales. Sharks. Sea turtles. Stingrays. And he knows exactly what’s happening.
The darkening horizon engages the full attention of the Aerna; the murmurs grow louder the closer it gets. The darkness approaches like a mist, eclipsing the natural snlight from the surface.
An eclipse of fish.
With each of his rapid heartbeats, Galen thinks he can feel the actual years disappear from his life span. A wall of every predator imaginable, and every kind of prey swimming in between, fold themselves around the edges of the hot ridges. The food chain hovers toward, over them, around them as a unified force.
And Emma is leading it.
Nalia gasps, and Galen guesses she recognizes the white dot in the middle of the wall. Syrena on the outskirts of the Arena frantically rush to the center, the tribunal all but forgotten in favor of self-preservation. The legion of sea life circles the stadium, effectively barricading the exits and any chance of escaping.
Galen can’t decide if he’s proud or angry when Emma leaves the safety of her troops to enter the Arena, hitching a ride on the fin of a killer whale. When she’s but three fin-lengths away from Galen, she dismisses her escort. “Go back with the others,” she tells it. “I’ll be fine.”
Galen decides on proud. Oh, and completely besotted. She gives him a curt nod to which he grins. Turning to the crowd of ogling Syrena, she says, “I am Emma, daughter of Nalia, true princess of Poseidon.”
He hears murmurs of “Half-Breed” but it sounds more like awe than hatred or disgust. And why shouldn’t it? They’ve seen Paca’s display of the Gift. Emma’s has just put it to shame.”
“Who is that woman? How did she find us?”
“She’s ex-Mafia.” I inhale, like I just admitted I’m ex-Mafia or something. It doesn’t help that Mom glares at me as if I just confessed it, too.
“Seriously, ex-Mafia? Like, the Mafia?”
“Poseidon’s beard,” she mutters.
I’m pretty sure I won’t get used to my mom using fishy cuss words anytime soon.
“Try to lose her.”
“It’s a long straight road with hardly any turns.”
“Well, speed up!” She pops open the glove compartment. Then pulls out a freaking gun.
“Don’t start. It’s just to scare her. Usually all you have to do is show someone that you have a gun and that you’re not going to take any crap-“
“Did you hear what I said? She’s ex-Mob. Her gun probably eats guns like that for breakfast.”
“He doesn’t like Emma and Rachel making plans together. Not because he thinks they’re being devious, but because he doesn’t like feeling left out. Not to mention that when Emma is making plans without him, they’re usually reckless. The only reason she’d keep a secret from him is if she was doing something he didn’t approve of, or didn’t want him to interfere with. After all, her motto is “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Galen despises that motto.
“I cleared out the sporting goods store this morning,” Rachel says. “I took what was on the shelf and made them cough up their stock in the back.”
Galen tenses up. Emma laughs. “Don’t be jealous, Highness. Rachel still loves you more than she loves me.”
“Aww! You guys are fighting over me?” Rachel says, pinching Galen’s cheek. “That’s so adorable.”
“I’m not jealous,” he says, trying not to sound pouty. “I just don’t know why we would need life jackets.”
“We don’t,” Emma says, wriggling around on his lap so she can face him. Secretly, he’s delighted. “But humans do. And if my job is keeping the humans safe, then I should be prepared, right?”
But Galen is too distracted by the close proximity of her mouth to be bothered with the words coming out of it. She must recognize it, because she leans forward as if giving him a chance to make good on his craving. It’s all the invitation he needs.
He captures her mouth with his. Life jackets, islands, and airports are forgotten. The only thing that exists is her lips on his, her body pressed into his. Suddenly the creaky office chair is transformed into their own little world.
“Uh, I’m just going to get more wine,” Rachel says. He didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable enough to leave. Not good. The last thing we need is privacy and free rein to do as we please. He tries to end it, to pull away, but Emma won’t have it. And it’s difficult for him not to indulge her.”
“Still, this moment belongs to the two of them, Mom and this handsome stranger. He reaches the passenger side door and stares down at her with steely violet eyes-down at my mother who never cries, down at my mother who’s now bawling like a spanked child-his face contorted in a rainbow of so many emotions, some that I can’t even name.
Then Grom the Triton king sinks to his knees in front of her, and a single tear spills down his face. “Nalia,” he whispers.
And then my mother slaps him. It’s not the kind of slap you get for talking back. It’s not the kind of punch she dealt Galen and Toraf in our kitchen. It’s the kind of slap a woman gives a man when he’s hurt her deeply.
And Grom accepts it with grace.
“I looked for you,” she shouts, even though he’s inches from her.
Slowly, as if in a show of peace, he takes the hand that slapped him and sandwiches it between his own. He seems to revel in the feel of her touch. His face is pure tenderness, his voice like a massage to the nerves. “And I looked for you.”
“Your pulse was gone,” she insists. By now she chokes back sobs between words. She’s fighting for control. I’ve never seen my mother fight for control.
“As was yours.” I realize Grom knows what not to say, what not to do to provoke her. He is the complete opposite of her, or maybe just a completion of her.
Her eyes focus on his wrist, and tears slip down her face, leaving faint trails of mascara on her cheeks. He smiles and slowly pulls his hand away. I think he’s going to show her the bracelet he’s wearing, but instead he rips it off his wrist and holds it out for her inspection. From where I’m standing it looks like a single black ball tied to some sort of string. By my mom’s expression, this black ball has meaning. So much meaning that I think she’s forgotten to breathe. “My pearl,” she whispers. “I thought I’d lost it.”
He encloses it in her hand. “This isn’t your pearl, love. That one was lost in the explosion with you. For almost an entire season, I scoured the oyster beds, looking for another one that would do. I don’t know why, but I thought maybe if I found another perfect pearl, I would somehow find you, too. When I found this though, it didn’t bring me the peace I’d hoped for. But I couldn’t bring myself to discard it. I’ve worn it on my wrist ever since.”
This is all it takes for my mom to throw herself into his arms, bringing Rachel partially with her. Even so, it’s probably the most moving moment I’ve ever encountered in my eighteen years.
Or at least it would be, if my mom weren’t clinging to a man who is not my dad.”
“I have a grandfather. I have a king for a grandfather. A king fish.
I clear my throat. “So…This isn’t just about my mom’s identity. This is Jagen making his move to take over the kingdoms? And…you think he’s getting away with it?”
“But I don’t understand. What could I do to stop him? I’m just a Half-Breed.”
“You can come with me and show them that you have the true Gift of Poseidon. That Nalia is your mother. It will prove her identity, that the Royals aren’t lying, and that they haven’t strayed.”
“Won’t it technically prove that they have strayed? I mean, you know how babies are born right? That means my mom and my dad-“
“I know how it works. And, uh, I don’t want to talk about it with you. And I’m pretty sure Galen doesn’t want me to, either.”
“Now, years later, I can translate that lesson into: safe isn’t always better than sorry. Sometimes you need sorry to appreciate the safe. And sometimes safe is just plain boring. Rayna’s probably going through a combination of both right now. And who am I to say what’s right and what’s wrong?
And what is the law to say how she should live?
The law prohibits Half-Breeds. Am I really that bad? The law is like a one-size-fits-all T-shirt. And how often do those shirts really fit everyone?”
“Young Emma.” It doesn’t sound condescending at all, the way he says it. Just wistful. “The twins will need you now. More than they realize.” He eases closer to me, pensive. “It was difficult for them when we lost our mother. Losing Rachel is…They suffered a great lost today.”
I draw in a breath. If we weren’t underwater, tears would be spilling down my cheeks instead of getting sopped up by the gentle current. I wonder how many tears the ocean has swallowed, how much of the ocean is actually made of tears.”
“Her kiss is hungry, as if long deprived. As if they didn’t already spend the morning doing just exactly this, making up for the lost time they were apart. Triton’s trident, I could do this all day. Then he catches himself. No, I couldn’t. Not without wanting more. Which is why we need to stop.
Instead, he entwines his hands in her hair, and she teases his lips with her tongue, trying to get him to fully open his mouth to her. He gladly complies. Her fingers sneak their way under his shirt, up his stomach, sending a trail of fire to his chest.
He is about to lose his shirt altogether. Until Antonis’s voice booms from the doorway. “Extract yourself from Prince Galen, Emma,” he says. “You two are not mated. This behavior is inappropriate for any Syrena, let alone a Royal.”
Emma’s eyes go round as sand dollars. He can tell she’s not sure what to think about her grandfather telling her what to do. Or maybe she’s caught off guard that he called her a Royal. Either way, like most people, Emma decides to obey. Galen does, too. They stand up side by side, not daring to be close enough to touch. They behold King Antonis in a polka-dot bathrobe, and though he’s the one who looks silly, they are the ones who look shamed.
Galen feels like a fingerling again. “I apologize, Highness,” he says. It seems like all he does lately is apologize to the Poseidon king. “It was my fault.”
Antonis gives him a reproving look. “I like you, young prince. But you well know the law. Do not disappoint me, Galen. My granddaughter is deserving of a proper mating ceremony.”
Galen can’t meet his eyes. He’s right. I shouldn’t be flirting with temptation like this. With the Archives on their way-or possibly here already-there is a distant but small chance that he and Emma can still live within the confines of the law. That they can still live as mates under the Syrena tradition. And he almost just blew it. What if it had gone too far? Then his mating with Emma would forever be blemished by breaking the law. “It won’t happen again, Highness.” Not until we’re mated, anyway.
“Um. Did you just promise not to kiss me ever again?” Emma whispers.
“Can we talk about this later? The Archives are obviously here, angelfish.”
She’s on the verge of a fit, he can tell. “He’s just looking out for us,” Galen says quickly. “I agree, we need to respect the law-“
At this her fit subsides as if it was never there. She smiles wide at him. He can’t decide if it’s genuine, or if it’s the kind of smile she gives him when he’ll pay for something later. “Okay, Galen.”
“Galen, Emma,” Nalia calls from the dining room, saving him from making a fool of himself. “Everyone is here.”
Emma gives him a look that clearly says, “We’re so not done with this conversation.” Then she turns and walks away. Galen takes a second to regain a little bit of composure-which kissing Emma tends to steal from him. Then there’s the mortification of being interrupted by-Get it together, idiot.”
“Is it not I myself who am to blame, instead of them?”
“Mistakes can be fixed. Bad decisions can be undone. Model houses can be rebuilt. And perfection is only a word that makes you feel bad about yourself.”
“If life could be reduced to the purely rational, to a solvable equation, there would be no mystery, no excitement. Life would become utterly predictable; a tedious movie that could never surprise. The”
“And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?”
“Niech pan pomyśli: tracę nadzieję, gdy odżywa we mnie pragnienie życia; odzyskuję ją na nowo, gdy odczuwam w sobie pragnienie śmierci.”
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